In Part One of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Dante is lost in a forest and confronted by three vicious beasts. Unable to pass them, he retreats and finds himself in frightening darkness. Seeing a shadowy figure, he calls for help. The mystery person reveals himself to be the poet Virgil, sent to guide Dante on a tour of Hell. They travel through the nine circles of Hell, the punishments of each circle more horrific and intense than the previous. Dante views the prisoners and learns of their sins, and even talks with some of them. Gluttons, deceivers, violent, traitors, cowards, fornicators and whatever other class of offender a person may be are all represented; neither heathen nor churchman is spared. Each circle holds a different category of sinner, and inflicts a unique and elaborate torture that may include, but is not limited to: physical constriction and mutilation, burning, boiling, freezing, scourging by demons, mental anguish and immersion in excrement. The holy vengeance is relentless and eternal, and outdoes any horror movie. In the lowest pit of Hell, Satan, in a pained, hideous, three-headed form, chews upon Brutus, Cassius and Judas Iscariot. Virgil leads Dante, climbing downward until it becomes upward (as in passing through the centre of the earth), and out of Hell.
Inferno is written as a poem, with a beauty and rhythm that compensated somewhat for those times when I got lost as to the meaning. Dante seems to be a kind of epic, morbid Dr Seuss. The imagery is graphic (I’d love to see Seuss-like illustrations for Inferno), and as Dante descends deeper, the suffering depicted grows harrowing. I found this was slightly negated by many of the sufferers’ willingness to stop and have a chat with him—if the punishment was as severe as it appears, then Christ’s “weeping and gnashing of teeth” description of the damned seems more likely.
At a party recently I joined a group I fellows whom I had just met. They were discussing Mixed Martial Arts. I don’t know anything about MMA, but I didn’t want to stand by myself, so I tried to fit in. Whenever one of the guys mentioned a fighter’s name, all the others would express their expert opinion of said fighter. I just stood at the edge of the group and nodded along, praying nobody would ask me whom my favourite fighter was—I only know Hulk Hogan. I felt a similar awkward half-exclusion while reading Inferno. The characters Dante meets in Hell are most often Italian, or people from Roman and Greek history and mythology; I was unfamiliar with almost all of them. It was like Dante and Virgil were sharing all these great in-jokes, and I just had to pretend I understood them. It was a shame, because the suffering was more impacting when I recognised the condemned.
If you’re looking for an epic Italian poem about Hell, then definitely read Inferno—it’s not like there are many other options. I found it a little hard to follow at times (though to be fair, this may have more to do with my intelligence than it does with Dante’s prose), and I was unfortunately ignorant of many of the characters’ histories, but the book is original and rich, stirring imagination and conscience. God save me. 6/10
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